A Crocus Memory
I first met Ms. Cecilia Hwang sixteen years ago on a Sunday afternoon when spring’s first buds were testing out their newfound powers. Sunday School had let out, and my friend and I were on one of our “nature walks” around the block of St. Paul Chong Hasang, a Roman Catholic church in the New York City borough of Queens.
After traipsing past chirping bushes, thick tree roots bursting through sidewalks, and delicately clothed cherry blossom trees, we were on the last leg of our journey when Ms. Cecilia Hwang caught sight of us looking at a bunch of flowers growing along the base of a STOP sign.
“What beautiful flowers!” we heard a bright voice exclaim. Our gazes, directed at the exquisite flowers poking their heads around the rusty pole, turned to the kindly, creased visage of Ms. Hwang, who had a smile that would be quick to light up her expression in future encounters. Though many other details are hazy, in my memory, Ms. Hwang wears a pristine blouse, a neatly ironed navy-blue skirt, and sensible shoes, her classic Sunday outfit.
“These are crocuses,” she said, pointing to the royal purple flowers, and explained that they arrived early in the spring. When I told her my name, she broke into a smile. “Your patron, St. Agnes, is a wonderful saint. Did you know that her feast day is on January 21?”
We parted ways then, but Ms. Hwang’s spirit never did. Like the crocus, which retains its bold colors even when pressed in a book for many seasons, this remarkable woman who appeared on a tranquil day sixteen years ago also remains deeply pressed, and impressed, into the pages of my childhood memories.
Mannam. It was a word that occupied Ms. Hwang’s thoughts and informed her actions, and she sprinkled it generously into the conversations we shared over the coming years of our friendship. Translated from Korean, mannam means “encounter.” To Ms. Hwang, no encounter was a coincidence, no crossing of paths collisions borne of random motion. She graced every encounter, interaction, and ensuing relationship with an intensity that showed her unshakable belief in a Providential hand that linked her life to others. Not a single second spent with her fell through the cracks of inattention.
Ms. Hwang’s commitment to mannams was probably formed in a simpler era in Korea, back when it was common for passersby to be invited to shots of soju along dusty backroads in the day’s reprieve. Ms. Hwang brought this warmth with her within the walls of St. Paul Chong Hasang and out into the streets of New York.
“She did a lot of charity work and volunteered in groups that ministered to the homeless,” Deacon Paul Myung Chin, who had known Ms. Hwang for 35 years, says. She, along with the founding priest of St. Paul’s, Father Thomas Jung, had sponsored him for the diaconate, to which he was ordained in 1990. “A good friend, a good teacher, a good role model. She was my spiritual director and a spiritual counselor for many in our church. She was a mother to us all.”
Mrs. Theresa Koh, a long-time parishioner at St. Paul’s, experienced this maternal care. The two women met through a bible study that Ms. Hwang was leading in 2011. (Ms. Hwang, who had studied theology alongside prospective priests at a seminary in Korea for seven years, was an active bible study teacher at St. Paul’s and at many other Korean churches in the U.S.) Throughout the year-long study on the Gospel of Matthew, their friendship grew and Ms. Hwang often invited Mrs. Koh over to her apartment for lunch and conversation.
Mrs. Koh says that she once told Ms. Hwang in passing how much she liked gaji-namul, a steamed eggplant dish that her mother used to make for her in Korea. After that conversation, Ms. Hwang had this side dish for Mrs. Koh whenever she came over. “She didn’t put up the pretense of listening when we talked. I ate as much of the gaji-namul that the teacher made as my heart desired and even took generous portions home with me.”
Korean decorum insists upon a great number of protocols to guide and safeguard societal relationships, age being a prevalent factor. (One’s age determines how one is addressed, whether one is treated to or treats others to meals, and even if one can be called a friend.) As they grew closer, however, Ms. Hwang soon “dropped all affectation and started treating me as her child.” Mrs. Koh remembers the attentive care Ms. Hwang poured on her. “I experienced an affection that I hadn’t received even from my own mother — and I felt it all the way here in New York!”
A Budding Friendship
My first mannam with Ms. Hwang on that Sunday afternoon deepened into a bond in the summer of 2012, when Ms. Hwang agreed to provide a short bible study for me before I left for college.
Stepping into her apartment was like entering a small museum, a carefully-curated space filled with items collected throughout the past two decades: thick tomes with peeling spines filled bookcases; icons and specimens from pilgrimages lined shelves; Rublev’s Three Angels, the back of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and a laughing Jesus greeted visitors from the walls.
She started the tour of her apartment in the main room, which included a dining table, a TV, and a green wall of plants that were strewn upon windowsills and any free floor space to be found along the entire length of the room.
“These are nah-pahl kkot,” she said, pointing to a bundle of skinny tendrils climbing upwards the side of a window. Literally “trumpet flowers,” they translate to morning glories. “They are my goh-hyang flowers.”
Goh-hyang? I asked.
“Goh-hyang – it means ‘hometown.’ How happy I was to see them here in America. ‘Oh, you grow here too, don’t you!’ I cried out to them. They were growing on the street and I took a sprig home. ‘Why won’t you bloom today?’ I had asked them, ‘We have a guest coming over.’ But they didn’t bloom.”
The next stop was her room, a cross between a study and a sleeping area.
Eyes shining, she picked up a red-brown rock from her bookshelf. She had picked it up during a pilgrimage on Mount Sinai, where once God appeared to Moses in fire and thunder to provide the Ten Commandments. “Sinai,” she said, extending her arms. “It’s not just one mountain, it’s a whole range of them!”
She picked up another rock, flat, smooth, oblong. “And this one! I was standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, gazing at the waters, when I saw this rock. It’s the shape of the Sea. And look!” She pointed at a paler rock attached at the edge, heart-shaped. “It’s Jesus’ heart to me.”
She presented me with a small tan box, inside which was a cross-shaped twig that she had found on a walk in the park. She had brought it home and pressed a heart-shaped sticker to the center. And now it was a present for me.
It was a gift that on any other day I would have passed over. But through the wonder with which Ms. Hwang imbued this twig, it took upon a deeper meaning and became my own personal cross, courtesy of nature herself.
The world always became a little better through Ms. Hwang’s eyes, one in which every rock and twig became a thing of consequence.
A Diagnosis of Blessings
In the fall of 2017, Ms. Hwang contracted lung cancer. A few months after she learned of her diagnosis, a few of her bible study students—Mrs. Koh, my mother, and I—went to visit her for her birthday. She greeted us outside her apartment complex in a bright, red turtleneck and a smile that reassured us that the world was still beautiful and everything would turn out fine.
Ms. Hwang’s place was as warm and inviting as the last time I had stepped into it. On that winter day, heavy clouds had hung in the sky, blocking the sun’s entrance. Ms. Hwang had confronted the gloom by turning on all the lights in the apartment.
Fast forward to a balmy spring day. Rays of sunlight slanted through the voluminous windows and glinted off the table’s plastic covering on which four empty bowls lay. We had just finished a lunch of udon noodles served in a special broth that Ms. Hwang had prepared the day before.
“This lung cancer is a blessing from God,” she said, looking around and breaking into her usual smile. Her former students, spanning nearly three generations, sat looking back with heavy hearts. It was usual for her to follow accounts of hardships with a smile or laugh. But on that day, there was a bit of resignation in her eyes, so soft and quiet that it pricked my eyes.
Her thoughts led her to her main love in life, Jesus. “Only when you understand the suffering of Jesus can you teach about Him to others. So…I don’t anymore.” It was as if she had entered a new understanding of suffering, through the narrow gate much sought after by Christians and into lands uncharted and heights incomprehensible to many.
She brought out a cake and we serenaded her. She sang too, for us and I suppose for herself, in her sweet voice and a melodious vibrato that brought to mind singing coming miles and years over a staticky record.
Happy Birthday to you! As the song came to its end, she crossed her thumb and index finger into the shape of a heart, and we all followed suit, pointing little hearts to each other and at the phone that was recording that moment.
The Rosebud of Patrons
Many Catholics have special connections with the saints whose names they carry. These patron saints serve as heavenly protectors for their namesake, and in turn, the Catholic faithful strive to emulate their patrons. I believe Ms. Hwang and her patron saint, St. Cecilia, had a special bond.
Saint Cecilia is one of the most well-known and beloved martyrs in the Roman Catholic Church. Born in 3rd century Rome, St. Cecilia was condemned to execution for her faith by the prefect of her city. Legend has it that after failing to decapitate her with three strikes of the sword, the executioner left her to die bleeding on the floors of the Roman baths. Saint Cecilia, however, lived on for three more days, preaching the Gospel, praying for others, and converting many to the church.
The superhuman strength and resilience that marked St. Cecilia’s life could be found throughout Ms. Hwang’s as well. Growing up in an impoverished Korea, she took upon the societal demands placed upon the eldest of the family and became a second mother for her three younger siblings after their father, the family breadwinner, passed away. At the expense of her own dreams, she taught them, clothed them, and sent them to school with the wages she earned as a teacher.
When she came to America, she supported herself as a single woman working at the United States Postal Service. For someone who used her native tongue with great charisma, intelligence, and command, Ms. Hwang must have gone through moments of frustration with her handle of a foreign language. However, in the few accounts that she shared of her experience at the USPS, she never mentioned her hardships but only the kindness she received from her co-workers.
Even when life dealt her the final and heaviest strike, lung cancer, she remained cheerful, preached the Gospel, prayed for others, and remained a rock of faith for the members of the church.
There were many people who appreciated Ms. Hwang’s resilience. “She had an uncompromising integrity,” Mrs. Regina Chang, a former parishioner of St. Paul’s, says. She had forged a close friendship with Ms. Hwang in 2009 after her husband’s fatal car accident. Ms. Hwang had been heartbroken to hear the news and came to pray for him with the Thursday Prayer Night Group that both women participated in. “No matter what others would say or think of her, she held to an unflinching honesty, especially when it came to God’s Word. I found it admirable.”
Ms. Hwang’s strength of will did not come without moments of friction. Mrs. Koh remembers how, at first, “the teacher was stern, and communicating with her was difficult.” During the weekly two-hour bible study sessions at the Hyoan Oriental Medical Center, Ms. Hwang would passionately urge the six members “to meet the Resurrected Lord, to denounce a dead and incorrect faith, and to repent.” Ms. Koh remembers how she would, during many classes, bow to the teacher’s authority like a “scolded schoolchild” and mumble to herself, Just what exactly does it mean to meet the Resurrected Lord? Just what am I doing so incorrectly?
Perhaps Ms. Hwang’s resilience and iron will were being built throughout her life in preparation for her ultimate trial. Ms. Hwang had prayed to God for suffering, and God granted her request immediately. “When she received her diagnosis, she regretted having asked God this request,” Mrs. Koh recalls. However, she took upon her cross with joy and grace. “She was the world’s most beautiful and joyful cancer patient…She was grateful that, in her old age, she was able to participate in the Lord’s suffering.”
It was the first time Mrs. Koh had met anyone like Ms. Hwang. “If a person is hurting and miserable, it is natural that they will get upset or needlessly resent or blame the people closest to them.” Instead, she complimented her younger siblings for taking good care of her. She constantly thanked her doctors. She was surprised at God’s proximity and the intimate kindness and mercy He showered upon her at this stage in her life.
Many people mourned the day when death stopped by Ms. Hwang’s apartment and took her away. After two weeks of acute pain, she passed away on June 6, 2020, around three in the morning. Gemma Choi, her younger sister, said it was a peaceful passing. She was 78 years old.
She Lives in Me
During our last Bible Study, Ms. Hwang sent me off with a card and a few books to take with me to college. As I sat in my room later that day in the midst of packed boxes and suitcases, I opened the card and read inside:
To My Lovely Agnes,
I congratulate you with a joyful heart on your new life.
Become a person who brings kindness and comfort to others, a person whom others would want to meet again. To love, to be just, to be patient, to spread joy to others – these are already planted in us by God.
I hope that you can become a person who carries joy with you.
The truth of her words struck me then as it strikes me today. Back then, I was excited to make my debut in college, stressed out by the changes to come, and strategizing on how I could survive my studies. Her letter reminded me that perhaps the most important things in life were not about achievements but about staying true to the love that was written in my heart and the kindness I could show to others.
I still carry her words with me to this day and offer them to my own students heading off to college. Ms. Cecilia Hwang’s legacy will continue in this world, even in her death.